Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time reviewed

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is intended to be Disney and producer-extraordinaire Jerry Bruckheimer’s big follow-up to the ultra-successful Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Instead of being based on a theme park ride, however, this epic fantasy-adventure uses a video game as its source material. But what a video game! Ubisoft’s 2003 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is arguable one of the greatest puzzle-solving action-adventures of all time – combining likeable characters, gravity-defying acrobatic combat and a nifty time-control premise. Seven years later, the film adaptation is careful to contain these vital elements and the end result is a fairly satisfying big screen translation that, while ultimately forgettable, is still a great deal of fun while the projector is rolling.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time centres on Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), an orphaned street urchin who impresses the Persian king with his courage and nobility as a child, and is promptly adopted by him. Despite a rebellious streak that persists into adulthood, Dastan maintains a strict moral code, and a deep love for his adoptive family, which includes his confidante uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and brothers – the legitimate heirs to the throne – Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle). During an attack on the sacred city of Alamut, Dastan comes into possession of the fabled Dagger of Time, which has the ability to reverse time in short seconds-long increments, allowing the user to alter events to their liking. The Dagger isn’t enough however to save Dastan from betrayal, and soon he and the Dagger’s feisty guardian Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) are on the run – from Dastan’s family, their armies, and the deadly, almost mystically powered, Hassansins.

Prince of Persia starts off exceptionally strong. The first 30 minutes of the film are its best, and most successfully capture the feel of the video game on which it is based. The siege of Alamut, with Dastan leading his band of commandos, and using his acrobatic skills to solve puzzles and swing the battle in the Persians’ favour, is fantastic.

After the initial battle, however, the film adaptation becomes faithful to the original video game more in spirit than actual storyline. Apart from the disappointing lack of booby trapped tunnels, however, this isn’t too much of a problem. What is problematic however is just how exposition-heavy Prince of Persia is. The audience, if they have a brain (or have even just seen the film’s poster) should have a good idea who the villain is. Devoting an hour of storytelling time to this “mystery” as characters run back and forth across the same terrain for various convoluted reasons – not unlike Pirates of the Caribbean actually – is overkill, and slows the film down dramatically. And at 145 minutes, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time definitely does feel overlong.

Prince of Persia is also lengthened by the inclusion of several scenes and elements that are unnecessary. Alfred Molina’s anti-authority sheik, although entertaining, seems to be present purely for comic relief. And the ostrich race scenes, while certainly exotic, don’t progress the plot at all.

It’s also worth noting at this point how the film is affected by the odd decision to make Prince of Persia a “team” movie – essentially Lord of the Rings, with the Sahara Desert substituting for lush New Zealand. Unlike the game, where the prince was always at the centre of the action, Dastan takes a backseat on several occasions in the film, denying the audience an opportunity to watch the swashbuckler unleash his impressive physicality in new and exciting ways. So instead of Dastan outmanoeuvring a dart-throwing Hassansin, the task falls to an African warrior who is a master at throwing knives. The viewer receives the sense that if the filmmakers had dumped the squad approach and focused solely on the prince and princess, like in the Prince of Persia game, there would be more screen time to explore the burgeoning love-hate relationship of Dastan and Tamina.

All these quibbles aside, there is a lot that is good about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. While the frequent use of a hazy slow motion filter during action scenes is distracting and irritating, the way time control is represented visually in the film is striking. It’s also just one of the pleasant little nods to the other games in the Sands of Time trilogy – no doubt also to be adapted for the big screen if this film is a success.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is certainly also admirable for the amount of time that it grants to characters and their relationships. Although these characters are typically painted in broad strokes, it’s unusual to find a midyear blockbuster that has something so positive to say about love and the deep bond between people – particular within families. Ignoring the film’s confusing climax, Prince of Persia is certainly not mindless, or thematically unambitious.

Given the amount of time devoted to characters in the film, it’s little surprise then that performances are solid all around. As expected, Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing (if a little vanilla) as cocky Dastan, and Arterton is fortunately far less annoying in the full length film than in the 2-minute trailers. Ben Kingsley is probably the film’s standout though. His character could have been horrifically over the top, yet Kingsley keeps him pleasantly understated and convincing until right near the end.

In the end, given its flaws, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably not the best ever video game-to-film adaptation on the whole. That title still belongs to Silent Hill or the first Resident Evil. Prince of Persia, however, is certainly the most pedigreed game translation to date, given the talent involved, the film's expensive A-grade look, and the effort made by everyone involved in the project. Most importantly, when viewed simply as an entertaining fantasy-adventure the film is more gratifying than Clash of the Titans by a mile.

There’s a simple test to determine if you’ll enjoy Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If the market scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark always bring a smile to your face, then you’re certain to get a kick (however briefly) out of Prince of Persia.


claidheamhmor said…
Nice review. I also found it entertaining, though over-long.
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for commenting, claidheamhmor. Great to hear that someone is sharing my opinion on those points.
Kate said…
I liked the movie! And I hadn't seen much promo stuff or posters before so I had no clue who the villain was.
Pfangirl said…
Kate, I had a similar problem with New Moon, but I suppose it's because I knew the truth behind the whole "what's up with Jacob?" plot line. Because I know what's going on, I wish the filmmakers would just hurry up and get to the point.

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